The 2013 holiday season is now a memory. America has spent the weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year listening to Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, and so many other wonderful singers of the past whose holiday recordings have become seasonal perennials, played at every shopping mall, department store, and restaurant in every town across the country.
But what happened to Perry Como? His Christmas recordings were virtually nonexistent this year. Of course if you’re under 50 or 60 years old you probably don’t know who I’m talking about, but let me tell you, Perry Como was once a big part of the American fabric. At one time his voice was as associated with Christmas as was Bing Crosby’s. But Como was a gentle man, a quiet man, not the hell-raising rat packer of a Sinatra, and maybe that explains why he has been forgotten.
In a singing (and sometimes acting) career that spanned over six decades, the name Perry Como had come to mean a warm, smooth, easy-listening, crooning style that characterized popular music in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. In just a single week in the 1940s, the music industry pressed and sold 4 million Como records. In the 1950s, 11 of his singles sold well over 1 million copies each. In more than six decades of singing, his records sold more than 100 million copies; 27 individual prints reached the million-record mark.
He was born Pierino Como in Canonsburg, Pa., one of a family of 13 children. At 11 years old he was working after school cutting hair in a barbershop and before long he had set his sights on owning his own shop — even making monthly payments toward one. But he enjoyed singing so much he abandoned his barbershop ambitions soon after high school when he married his high school sweetheart, Roselle Beline.
Como was soon hired in the Freddie Carlone Orchestra, where he made $28 a week touring the Midwest. In 1937, he joined the Ted Weems Orchestra and was featured on the band’s “Beat the Band” radio program. Then along came CBS radio, who offered him a weekly show at $100 a week. This was followed by an RCA recording contract that gave him 42 Top 10 hits over the course of the next 14 years, a feat bettered only by Bing Crosby.
In his career Como sold well over 50 million records including 13 number #1 hit songs — the first was “Till the End of Time” in 1945. Others included “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “Surrender,” “Some Enchanted Evening, “Hot Diggity,” “Papa Loves Mambo,” “(There’s No Place Like) Home For the Holidays,” “Round and Round,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “It’s Impossible,” and “And I Love You So.” His warm, relaxing baritone voice and easy-going manner was definitely in the style of Bing, whom Perry always referred to as his “idol.”
He made his television debut in 1948 with NBC’s The Chesterfield Supper Club and by 1950, he had his own show with CBS: The Perry Como Show, which ran for five years. Back on NBC in 1955 he achieved his greatest success in television with an eight-year run. This was the show that featured his theme song: “Dream Along With Me.” In 1956 and ‘57 he won Emmy Awards for most outstanding television personality. The show itself won Peabody and Golden Mike awards.
During the run of the show he also received the Recording Industry Association of America’s first ever Gold Disc Award for his rendition of “Catch a Falling Star.” He retired from his show in 1963, opting to work only occasionally on TV specials. These specials included his traditional Christmas shows. By this time Como had developed what could be called the “coolest of the cool” persona. An easy-going, totally relaxed presence which led Dean Martin to quip that he “used to go over to Perry’s to borrow a cup of sleep.”
The private Como was exactly as he appeared to the public: a quiet, self-effacing man who always considered his performing activities third in order of importance behind his family and his faith.
Como was also well known for his recordings and performances of religious music of Christian and Jewish faiths. His first religious recordings, “Ave Maria” and “The Lord’s Prayer,” were recorded in 1949 in a church, with Como asking his parish priest to sit in on the recording sessions, to make certain they were done in the proper reverential tone. While his performances of “Ave Maria” became traditional on his holiday shows, Como would not perform it for live appearances, despite the requests of his audiences, saying, “It’s not the time or place to do it.”
In 1953, Perry Como recorded “Eli, Eli” and “Kol Nidrei,” and performed the latter on his television shows each year at the appropriate time on the Jewish calendar. His pronunciation and phrasing in both Hebrew and Yiddish were learned from a member of the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra, who was the son of a rabbi.
Como had numerous Christmas television specials, beginning on Christmas Eve 1948, and continuing to 1994, when his final Christmas special was recorded in Ireland. They were recorded in many countries, including the Holy Land, Mexico, and Canada, as well as many locations throughout the United States.
In December 2006, his 1946 recording of “Jingle Bells” topped Billboard magazine’s Hot Ringtones chart – five years after he died.